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America's Beloved River Up for Grabs

Insights + Opinion

Spanning nearly half a century of American history, the Wild and Scenic Rivers system has been backed by eight presidents and by congresses in virtually every session. The preamble of this bi-partisan legislation states that "certain selected rivers ... shall be preserved in free-flowing condition." Stressing the need for balance, this product of statesmanship recognized "that the established national policy of dam and other construction ... needs to be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers or sections thereof in their free-flowing condition."

Through the past two decades the Merced and all the National Wild and Scenic Rivers have survived unscathed through a political era when even the Clean Water Act was besieged. Today, those who challenge this river's protection would become the first to undermine the national promise that a select few of our very finest rivers will always flow free. Photo credit: Tim Palmer

For decades California has been a leader in the illustrious journey that followed this policy directive. The Middle Fork Feather was among the first National Wild and Scenic Rivers, safeguarded while Ronald Reagan was governor. Gov. Jerry Brown engaged the Carter administration to secure protection of multiple North Coast rivers slated for damming. President George W. Bush designated two California rivers in 2006. President Obama added 10 more.

Highlighting this remarkable network as the most iconic river of the Golden State, the Merced tumbles out of Yosemite Valley and into the Sierra foothills—its protection the result of a popular groundswell and decisive congressional agreements in both 1987 and 1992.

Escaping the rancor that typifies political debates today, this system of protected waterways has never faced a serious effort to undermine its meaning or effectiveness. Until now.

At the behest of the Merced Irrigation District, a bill to delete the lower end of the Merced passed the House last spring. It would break a long tradition of good faith built around a program as significant as our National Parks. It would be like slicing off the end of Yosemite for a shopping mall because a developer suddenly says he's interested.

The Middle Fork Feather was among the first National Wild and Scenic Rivers, safeguarded while Ronald Reagan was governor. Gov. Jerry Brown engaged the Carter administration to secure protection of multiple North Coast rivers slated for damming. Photo credit: Tim Palmer

An extreme irony here is that the encroachment not far below Yosemite would gain a mere 12,000 acre-feet of water for an irrigation agency that already delivers 500,000 (even more is diverted by others). Improved efficiency can supply multiples of what a sacrificed Merced would yield. Here, the balance championed in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has been struck: four dams already block the flow. Of the Merced's 145 miles, only 60 are protected. Now we find that even they are imperiled.

While the threatened mileage is not great, the compromises have been made, and if a river as beloved as the Merced is up for grabs, what's next? America's magnificent system of protected rivers—which accounts for less than one-quarter of one percent of the rivers and streams of the nation—is today on the chopping-block for a pittance of water.

Through the past two decades the Merced and all the National Wild and Scenic Rivers have survived unscathed through a political era when even the Clean Water Act was besieged. Today, those who challenge this river's protection would become the first to undermine the national promise that a select few of our very finest rivers will always flow free. It's ironic that this regression would be suffered by the river of Yosemite.

Tim Palmer is the author of Field Guide to California Rivers, Rivers of California, Endangered Rivers and the Conservation Movement, and other books.

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"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."